Celebration and Commemoration

Greek Vases from the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

By The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

Little Master Cup Depicting A Siren by The Tleson PainterThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

Greek figure-painted vessels served many functions in the lives and afterlives of their ancient owners. This exhibition highlights themes of celebration and commemoration in the decoration of vessels used in two important ancient contexts: the banquet and the tomb. 

Black-Figure Hydria Depicting Herakles Entering Olympos by The Antimenes PainterThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

This hydria (water vessel) was decorated using the black-figure technique, which was used in Athens from the early sixth century B.C. Figures were applied with a clay slip that turned black when fired, standing out against the red clay. Details were then incised or painted.

On the shoulder, the Greek hero Herakles wrestles the Nemean lion. This was the first of a series of labors requiring strength, cunning and endurance that were imposed on the hero as punishment for the murder of his wife and children.

The body of the vessel shows Herakles arriving on Mt. Olympos, the home of the gods, as reward for completing all of his labors. Herakles is on the left, wearing the skin of the Nemean lion as a cloak. He is greeted by the gods Athena and Dionysos, and escorted by Hermes.

Hydrias were used to hold water, in this case at an exclusive banquet (symposion) attended by aristocratic, male Athenians. To these viewers, the decoration emphasized the honors that rewarded the idealized male virtues of strength, rigor and athleticism, embodied by Herakles.

Black-Figure Skyphos Depicting Dionysos Between Two EyesThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

This skyphos (drinking cup) was also used during a symposion. This example is decorated with an image of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, wearing an ivy-leaf crown. He holds a vine in his right hand and a drinking horn in his left.

Dionysos is flanked by two large, staring eyes. These may reference the god’s dominion over the theater, transforming the cup into a mask as the user holds it to their face to drink. This playfully signals the power of wine to alter the identity of the drinker. 

Column-Krater with Orpheus among the Thracians by The Naples PainterThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

Column-kraters (mixing bowls) were used in the symposion to dilute wine with water, according to Greek convention. They were the centerpiece of the celebration, and are often decorated with images that helped set the scene for the symposion attendants. 

This vessel is decorated in the red-figure technique. Developed in the late 6th century B.C., the process reverses the black-figure technique: a clay slip is used for the background, which fires black and leaves the figures the color of the clay used to make the vase. 

The image on this vase shows the mythical musician Orpheus, seated on a rock and playing a lyre. He is surrounded by an audience of Thracian warriors, identifiable by their highly patterned, non-Greek dress and peaked caps.

The scene mirrors the context of the symposion, where guests would have listened to songs, poetry, and philosophical debate. The hypnotizing effect of Orpheus’ performance also hints at the intoxicating potential of wine.

Red-Figure Volute-Krater Depicting the Sack of Troy by The Baltimore PainterThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

This large volute-krater (mixing bowl) was created in Apulia, in southern Italy. It is decorated using the red-figure technique with added details in white and yellow. Unlike Athenian versions, these vases were funerary in function, and were deposited in the tombs of elites.

The body of the vessel depicts the chaotic fall of Troy. In the center, the Trojan princess Cassandra and the Greek queen Helen seek shelter from the Greek warriors Ajax and Menelaos in a temple of Athena. The goddess watches from top left, while Greeks and Trojans fight below.

For elite men, the probability of fighting and dying in battle was high, and the warrior was celebrated as a masculine ideal. By suggesting an analogy with the heroes of myth, images like this helped to glorify the deceased and articulate the grief of the bereaved.

Red-Figure Calyx-Krater of the Abduction of Europa by AsteasThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

This red-figure calyx-krater (mixing bowl) shows Zeus, the king of the gods, abducting the Tyrian princess Europa while disguised as a bull. According to myth, he carried her to the Greek island of Crete, where she gave birth to the legendary king Minos. 

The artist has depicted the sea-monster Skylla, part woman, part fish, and Triton, a male counterpart to indicate Europa's journey over the Mediterranean sea from Tyre (in Lebanon) to Crete. An octopus and fish swim beneath the bull's feet. 

The vase was made in Paestum in southern Italy and would also have been buried in a tomb as a grave good. Europa's journey over sea was considered a metaphor for the deceased's journey into the Afterlife and here offers hope to the viewer for its successful completion.

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